During my first official week at NYU Shanghai, I was able to try a plethora of bubble tea flavors from various bubble tea shops such as CoCo都可 (dōu kě), TPLUS茶家 (chá jiā), and 茶百道 (chá bǎidào). Bubble tea, known as boba tea or pearl milk tea, is a popular Taiwanese drink that has gained international popularity. It typically consists of tea (usually black or green tea), milk (often sweetened condensed milk or non-dairy alternatives like soy milk), sweeteners (such as sugar or flavored syrups), and tapioca pearls or other toppings. Bubble tea comes in a wide variety of flavors and variations, including fruit-flavored teas, iced versions, and even non-tea-based versions. Toppings other than tapioca pearls, such as fruit jellies, aloe vera, or popping boba (fruit juice-filled pearls), can also be added for extra flavor and texture. 

China is known for having innovative bubble tea drinks, but when I tried these drinks I noticed a jarring similarity: none of the drinks are sweet. In my community in the United States, more specifically Maryland, bubble tea shops conditioned me to be used to extremely sugary bubble tea drinks. I wanted to find out if the students at NYU Shanghai who came from America thought the same. 

I interviewed Dylan Nagel, a freshman who was born and raised in New Beach, California where he was able to frequent bubble tea stores, about what he thought about the sweetness level of bubble tea. He explained that “there is a button on most bubble tea stores to add more sugar, but even when I press it my boba is still not sweet.” I had finally found someone who shared my same sentiment that the bubble tea here is not sweet. However, our conditions were the same: we were both American natives who grew up in a country with one of the highest obesity rates in the world, which could be attributed to the access to sugary drinks. To garner an insider perspective on why the bubble tea here in Shanghai is not sweet, I interviewed Tiansheng Hu, a Shanghai native student and a frequent bubble tea purchaser, on his perspective on the sweetness level of bubble tea in Shanghai. I asked him if he thought bubble tea was sweet and his response was, “Yes, it is sweet enough.” This was a new perspective compared to the opinions of the international students from America. I further asked him why the bubble tea in Shanghai is not sweet, and he explained to me that “Chinese people have a tradition of drinking tea, and tea is traditionally bitter.” 

Beyond personal preference of Chinese students enjoying minimally sweet tea, there is a deeply rooted appreciation of tea culture in China. Varieties like oolong and some green teas can have naturally bitter flavors. These teas have a long history in China, and people appreciate them for their unique taste and potential health benefits. Bitter teas, especially certain green teas, are believed to have health-promoting properties. Bitter compounds in tea, such as catechins, are thought to have antioxidants and other health benefits (Higdon and Frei). Some people may prefer bitter teas for their potential medicinal qualities. Additionally, the bitterness can be an acquired taste. Some individuals develop a preference for bitterness over time and may find it enjoyable, as it provides a more complex and robust flavor compared to sweeter or milder teas. 

Before you criticize that your bubble tea is not sweet enough, take the time to appreciate the history and deep traditional value bitter tea has on society. Instead, add into the additional notes portion this message before you place an order: “请多加糖。” which translates to “please add a lot of sugar.”